theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
On the border between commercial and artistic theatre, there is a small number of established playwrights whose work migrates with surprising ease from one side to the other: Stoppard, Hare, Ayckbourn, of course, and someone now thought of less often, Peter Shaffer. After the career-defining success of Royal Hunt of the Sun in the sixties, Shaffer went on in the next decade to produce two of the iconic successes of Peter Hall’s regime at the National Theatre, each of which went on to long and profitable afterlives in the West End and on Broadway: the all-conquering Amadeus, and several years before that, the stranger and less ingratiating Equus.
The story of a teenager, Alan Strang, driven close to madness by his morbid quasi-religious obsession with horses, it is by no means a comfortable night in the theatre, and both its staging and its content originally had a huge impact. Why the play’s crucial moments, the sexual act and subsequent mutilation in the stable, might have caused controversy and revulsion isn’t difficult to imagine; but instead, the production caught the public’s imagination, and any revival now inevitably has to strive to reproduce the excitement the piece once generated.
While she claims to have approached Equus “as if it had just been written”, Thea Sharrock has nonetheless (quite apart from updating the text with the odd ‘wicked’ and ‘it’s a con) enlisted to help her the designer of the 1973 production, John Napier. He has reprised his sparse, monochrome mis-en-scene of an arena illuminated by harsh, specific downlighting, with horses represented by performers in wire masks (also, unwisely, adding torchbulb eyes to the masks and lashings of dry ice round the stage for good measure). Having in 1977 seen a late incarnation of the show in London, I can testify that the choreographed physicality of the horses, on their platform hooves, has retained some of its power to impress, and the epiphany of the boy’s centaur god still elicits a gratifying intake of breath from most of the audience.
Casting is more problematic. In London last year, Sharrock had the benefit of Daniel Radcliffe’s presence as Strang producing a guaranteed buzz, and a big advance sale; here, she has Simon Callow, bringing his slightly overripe charm to the role of Dysart, the emotionally troubled psychiatrist who treats Strang. Perhaps in a legacy of Richard Griffiths’ formidable presence, the production interests itself quite as much in Dysart as in his patient. As ever, Callow is immensely engaging, amusing where the script allows, self-consciously anguished elsewhere and vocally well-modulated throughout. Unfortunately, he is nobody’s idea of a low-key psychiatrist in a provincial hospital: the idea of this irrepressibly twinkly character settling down with a pile of dusty books on Egyptology while his dowdy wife makes the cocoa is risible.
Newcomer Alfie Allen – brother of Lily, son of Keith – makes the boy a bruised innocent: his performance has a jerky, staccato rhythm, capturing Strang’s childish minute-by-minute changeability fairly well, while neglecting the darkness of his inner life. The passions he acts out competently do not appear rooted, and get nowhere near the peaks of ecstasy specified in the text. (He has also clearly never heard the original television commercial jingles, so familiar to seventies audiences, which the boy endlessly repeats to block out reality – though that’s hardly his fault.)
Further down the batting order, the characters are, without exception, disappointingly two-dimensional. In the admittedly underwritten role of the magistrate Hester Salamon, Linda Thorson struggles to show the natural authority of a senior professional; Strang’s anaemic parents show little sign of the grim, dogmatic certainties which have deformed his youthful psyche, while the employer and putative girlfriend are so insubstantially embodied, they might as well be omitted altogether. To be charitable, possibly three months on the road have seen an overall simplification in the performances.
Ultimately, though, we perhaps need to look again at the play itself. A failure to convince is, to me, significant of something deeper than a possible case of the Monday evening touring blues. Without very good reasons we can see and believe for the boy’s behaviour, the play simply does not work – except as a very short-lived theatrical thrill.
At this point, I have to say I’ve never been convinced by the glibness of Shaffer’s central thesis. He admits that, having heard what he considered a dramatically-intriguing story of a boy who had blinded six horses, he then reached backwards for a psychologically plausible justification which his play could spend two and a half hours uncovering. So, with the whole play framed as a psychological investigation, what is at length pieced together is an unrealistically neat structure of cause and effect. Torn between religious and atheist parent, both trying to recruit him, boy develops emotional outlet in fetishistic worship of equine deity; analyst compromised by doubt and self loathing laboriously draws out boy’s full story; he is cured, but analyst is left in despair at the “waste of spirit”. As in Royal Hunt of the Sun and Amadeus, the sublime has been subdued by the mundane.
Do I buy it? Intellectually, no. Emotionally? At one time, years ago, but not in so lacklustre a production as this. Theatre has moved on since Equus was first popular. Its expressionist tricks no longer seem fresh. Some of the plot is superannuated: while animal mutilation may occasionally still surface, there can be precious few communist artisan printers or functioning porn cinemas left today in the prosperous towns of Berkshire. How would I have felt seeing the play for the first time? In a spirit of honesty, I should report that my reservations about this production were not widely shared, and the curtain calls at Richmond were met with applause that was more than polite: experienced at such a venue, that means we can say with confidence Shaffer’s work now dwells comfortably, and permanently, in the commercial realm.
Adam Sheldon © 2008
Originally published on R&V on 22-05-08
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